Bears. That’s what Betsy DeVos had on her mind during her confirmation hearings in January. It seems that Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming told her a story of a school that had a fence to protect itself from the bears that lived in the vicinity. What Ms. DeVos took away from that anecdote was that we needed more guns in our schools. This is a good example of how the Trump administration seems to engage in the development of policy. They hear an anecdote and that anecdote becomes the basis for wholesale overhauls to address the anecdote. There hasn’t been bear protection legislation proposed yet, but I’m sure it’s coming soon.
Those of us who are passionate about the importance of public education are in a tough spot these days. People who say they are “school reformers” have done an admirable job of painting a picture of “failing schools” where teachers are drawing massive paychecks while doing nothing to improve student achievement. These “reformers” are always able to pull out a statistic from some international standardized test that shows that kids in Finland are outperforming American students. They always have an anecdote about a school where students are struggling to meet proficiency targets. In the telling of their narrative, they would have you believe that American schools are failing. The problem that those of us in public education face is that we know that our schools are facing unprecedented challenges. We know that over 50 percent of public school students qualify for free and reduced lunches. We know that more and more students are arriving at our doors with limited language skills. We recognize that there is a consistent gap in achievement between our students who come from families with means and those who come from families who are struggling to make ends meet. Not only do we recognize these challenges, we are also actively working to solve them. Yet, we are told that those who haven’t spent a day working in a public school have better answers. The White House put out a budget that argues that after school programs are not showing success, despite massive evidence that they are successful. When public school advocates step forward to dispute the false narrative laid out by those who want to privatize our schools, we are told that we are merely protecting our cushy jobs. The voices of hard working educators are getting drowned out by people like Betsy DeVos and the Koch Brothers.
The argument that charter schools and vouchers are the answers to the challenges faced by our nation’s schools is easily refuted by data. The charter schools of Michigan, that Betsy DeVos spent a lifetime advocating for, have done nothing but line the pockets of those hoping to turn a profit on the school children of that state. The charter schools that Mike Pence advocated for in Indiana have been the host to massive corruption. The charter school experiment has been tried and has failed time and time again.
When I am faced with conflicting viewpoints I often look to the agendas of those making the arguments. As we look to improve education for the young people of America there seem to be two viewpoints. One viewpoint is that we should treat our schools like businesses whose job is to turn a profit and simply spit out results on standardized tests. The advocates for this philosophy are funded by those who seek to make a profit and steer public tax dollars towards schools that advocate for their political and religious preferences. On the other side are those who advocate that we need to support and protect our public schools; the schools whose doors are open to ALL students. These advocates are educators who have dedicated their lives to helping young people. These are educators who make a middle class living and aren’t going to make millions of dollars based on what they are advocating for. These are the people who are in the classrooms of our public schools actually doing the work. Whose motives are you going to trust?
Our schools face real challenges, but the answers don’t lie in taking away after school programs, making it harder for public schools to offer more choices within their walls, and further creating a system of “haves” and “have-nots” through voucher programs that have proven to fail time and time again. The answers lie in the belief that ALL students can learn. The answers lie in making teaching a profession that our best and brightest young people want to pursue. The answers lie in the schools that are in your neighborhood with the hard working people who have chosen to do the challenging and rewarding work that is public education.